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Signing Off: A News Anchor Tunes Out
You're probably sick of us talking heads with helmet hair and perfect teeth. I was, too. It was time to leave.

Author: Richard Speer
Speer lives in Portland, Ore.

Edition: U.S. EDITION
Section: My Turn
Page: 12
Date:  Aug. 21

Article Text:

Until three months ago I was a talking head, one of those cookie-cutter Ken dolls otherwise known as local television anchormen. I headed up evening newscasts at a station likely similar to those in your town, so you know my type. You've seen my helmet hair, my glinting teeth, my pancake makeup. You've heard me introduce "live, local, late-breaking team coverage of today's shocking tragedy." You're probably sick of me. I was sick of myself, which is why, poised on the upward arc of a promising career, I decided last May to run (not walk) away from the anchor desk.

Nearly a decade ago I emerged from journalism school with dreams of being an investigative reporter. I spent the next few years crisscrossing the country, working for small-town stations with news sets made of paneling and contact paper. My first job as a rookie reporter paid me $13,500 a year, with the "glamour" of live TV as a fringe benefit (if there is glamour in carrying your own camera, video deck, tripod, battery belt and microphone on stories, as reporters in small markets often must).

Then in 1996 a top-rated CBS affiliate in Arkansas hired me for a coveted anchor position, which meant I spent more time in the air-conditioned studio than on the streets. I enjoyed the ego-boosters: signing autographs, sitting at the best tables, buying tailored suits with the clothing allowance stipulated in my contract. Lest anyone label me a preening pretty boy a la William Hurt in "Broadcast News," I had a desk stacked with Associated Press awards to prove my credibility. When a talent agent picked me up last year and began fielding offers from big-market stations, I knew my star was on the rise. That was about the time I realized I had to get out.

The rationale for my retreat? Sure, there were the reasons you'd expect: the trend toward tabloid-style reports, the live-or-die-by-the-ratings mentality and the blurring of the line between journalism and entertainment. But there were more personal reasons for my leaving.

TV news had leeched the sincerity out of my personality and replaced it with pure cheese, turning me into a walking caricature. I knew I'd become a "Saturday Night Live" parody the day I realized my stylized on-air delivery was seeping into my casual conversation. Sometimes, to my dismay, I noticed myself using my announcer voice to order fast food at the drive-through.

Dealing with the public had also taxed my once easygoing nature. Viewers who approached me in the supermarket seldom offered thoughtful comments on my reports, preferring instead to give me unsolicited opinions on my coanchor's hairdo or the weatherman's erroneous forecast. I became a master of the curt dismissal and grew more misanthropic as the years progressed.

As a writer I felt stymied by the third-grade style required in news copy. "Your audience is Joe and Martha Sixpack," one news director told me, "so don't write, 'The criminals escaped.' Write, 'The bad guys got away'."

Most irksome of all was the goody-goody persona my superiors expected me to affect to keep up the station's wholesome image. My contract contained a morality clause that stated: "The employee shall conduct himself with due regard to public convention and morals... " I found this clause inhibiting when I worked at stations in the Bible Belt, where even innocuous behaviors like PDA with your wife could scandalize Main Street. One of my coanchors never drank a glass of wine in public, afraid tee-totalers would call the station and complain. As for me, I steered clear of the video store's adult section, made sure my navel ring didn't see the light of day and kept my interest in atheist philosopher Ayn Rand to myself--small sacrifices that left me with an unwelcome aftertaste of self-censorship.

Last spring, after my final newscast faded to commercial, I lingered on the set, reflecting on my naive dreams as a journalism student and my gradual disillusionment with the business that had turned me into a hype-huckster and phony. Much of America apparently shares my disenchantment. A Pew Research Center survey released in June showed an 8 percent drop since 1998 in the number of Americans who watch TV news. Meanwhile, the number of people who get their news from the Internet has spiked 10 percent. It seems Net-age news junkies don't want Ken and Barbie to filter their facts. Unfortunately, news directors who try to regain the eroding audience with trashy exposes and slick graphics only reinforce the resolve of those who've chosen to tune out.

None of that mattered to me that recent evening as I unplugged my earpiece a final time. Leaving the anchor desk behind, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I was no longer part of the problem.

Sometimes I noticed myself using my announcer voice to order fast food at the drive-through

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